Think Again: Realism

Amid war and recession, Americans are in a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact mood. But that, says a leading architect of George W. Bush's foreign policy, is no reason to adopt a misguided doctrine. 

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"We're All Realists Now."

“We’re All Realists Now.”

No. Pragmatists maybe, but not “realists.” Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president delighted many people, especially the self-described foreign-policy “realists” who accused his predecessor, George W. Bush, of denying reality in favor of dangerous idealism. Obama has praised the realpolitik of Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush. And a White House official recently told the Wall Street Journal, “[Obama] has really kind of clicked with that old-school, end-of-the-Cold-War wise-men generation.” The elder Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, called Obama’s election a rejection of the younger Bush “in favor of realism.”

Of course foreign policy should be grounded in reality. Americans agree that foreign-policy goals should be achievable — that the United States should match its ends with its means. What sensible person could argue with that? That is simply pragmatism. But “realism” as a doctrine (I’ll spare you the quote marks henceforth) goes much further: In the words of one leading realist, the principal purpose of U.S. foreign policy should be “to manage relations between states” rather than “alter the nature of states.”

Unquestionably, what makes realism seem so plausible today is skepticism about the war in Iraq and the belief that it was part of a crusade to “impose” democracy by force. I believe, to the contrary, that the purpose of the war was to remove a threat to national and international security. Whether the Iraq war was right or wrong, it was not about imposing democracy, and the decision to establish a representative government afterward was the most realistic option, compared with the alternatives of installing another dictator or prolonging the U.S. occupation. In Afghanistan, the same choice was made for the same reasons after the Taliban fell, and many realists not only supported that decision, but argued for putting even more effort into “nation-building.”

This is not the place to reargue the Iraq war. So let’s stipulate that the issue here is not whether to use military force to promote changes in the nature of states; it’s about whether — and how — to promote such changes peacefully. On that issue there is a genuine debate between realists and their critics. And a desire for pragmatism should not be confused with a specific foreign-policy doctrine that minimizes the importance of change within states.

“Barack Obama Is a Realist.”

Unclear. Critics of realism, like myself, do not think that a businesslike management of the “relations between states” should lead us to neglect issues regarding the “nature of states.” In reality, the internal makeup of states has a huge effect on their external behavior — so it must also be a significant consideration for U.S. foreign policy.

Judging by his own words, Obama seems to agree with this, and not the realist dogma. In Moscow, the U.S. president deliberately spoke over the heads of the Kremlin’s leaders to tell Russians, “Governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not.” In Cairo, he stated, “Government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power.” And in Ghana he was even clearer: “No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy; that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”

I like the sound of that, but some realists may not.

Nor do Obama’s early actions display a doctrinaire realism. He is supporting democracy in Pakistan and, notably, in Iraq, where his policy looks forward and not back, keeping the United States engaged while pressing Iraqis to meet their responsibilities. On the other hand, his administration did not offer much support for the remarkable reform movement in Iran. Ostensibly, this was out of concern that reformers would be labeled American agents. But Iran’s regime has applied that label anyway, and it’s hard not to think that the administration’s caution reflects a misplaced concern for the negotiations it hopes to undertake over Iran’s nuclear program. Not that those negotiations aren’t important, but they will succeed or fail based on the leverage the United States can muster. And this moment is an opportunity for the administration to increase its leverage.

Obama seems to be downplaying human rights in other places as well. The administration’s eagerness to hit the “reset button” with Russia led a prominent group of Eastern Europeans, including former Czech President Vaclav Havel and former Polish President Lech Walesa, to remind Obama in an open letter that “our region suffered when the United States succumbed to ‘realism.'” With China, too, where the United States’ ability to influence internal developments is admittedly limited, the Obama administration has gone much further than necessary in stating that it won’t let human rights interfere with bilateral cooperation.

So the jury is still out. But, hopefully, Obama and his team will prove to be realists in the true sense of the term — addressing the nature of states and not ignoring the reality that democratic reform is a powerful force to advance U.S. interests.

“Foreign Policy Is About the National Interest.”

Of course. But what is that? No one is against the national interest, but the realists and their critics differ significantly over what the national interest is. This debate is hardly new.

In the 1970s, the great controversy was over the policy of détente, which called for ignoring the inherent brutality of the Soviet regime in an effort to reach accommodation with it. An extreme example of this was U.S. President Gerald Ford’s refusal to meet with Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1975. Critics of détente, such as President Ronald Reagan and Sen. Henry Jackson, did not oppose negotiations with the Soviets. But they argued that negotiations needed to be on much stiffer terms and accompanied by pressure for internal change.

During my time in the U.S. government, I’ve participated in many rounds of this debate. One of them was over whether to preserve the State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights. Realists saw it as an annoying creation of Jimmy Carter’s administration; others thought it was more realistic to maintain pressure on an issue of major importance in the competition with the Soviet Union. Similarly, in the 1980s, Reagan’s promotion of democratic reform in the Philippines and South Korea was criticized not only by realists but even by Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, more often labeled a neoconservative, who had argued prominently for working with authoritarian regimes. And again, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the realists were generally opposed to NATO membership for the new Eastern European democracies and noticeably reluctant to support the independence movements in Ukraine and other Soviet republics.

Today, it’s hard to understand why realists remain so confident about their doctrine, given that changes in the nature of states have benefited the U.S. national interest in so many instances — not only the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of apartheid in South Africa, but also with the many transitions from dictatorship to democracy that have deepened security in almost every region of the world. Moreover, there are so many other instances where a disregard for such issues has set back the national interest.

Indeed, many of the most significant foreign-policy achievements of the elder Bush’s presidency — liberating Kuwait, unifying a democratic Germany, restoring democracy in Panama, and rescuing Somalia from starvation — were the result of bold actions with a moral dimension concerning the nature of states. Scowcroft deserves much credit for the first of these, though former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, his fellow realist, called it “naive” and an “overreaction.”

At the same time, some of that administration’s most regrettable failures — the inaction in the face of Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of Shiite Iraqis after the Gulf War, the failure to deal with a bloody war in Yugoslavia, the perceived opposition to Ukrainian independence, and the initial reluctance to embrace Boris Yeltsin, the reform-minded Russian president — were manifestations of a rigid realism.

Because I agreed with Scowcroft about the Gulf War and agreed with Brzezinski in his support for NATO enlargement and intervention in Bosnia, I don’t know whether that makes me a realist or makes them ideologues. But I do know that ignoring the nature of states is to ignore a fundamental reality that has a huge bearing on the U.S. national interest. To do so is not realistic. It is dogmatic or even ideological.

“Realism Means Dealing with Regimes You Dislike.”

Yes. But we can push reform, too. After all, that’s what Reagan did. He conducted serious negotiations with the Soviet Union that achieved real breakthroughs, while also characterizing the regime as an “evil empire,” forcibly contesting its foreign policies and pushing hard for internal reforms. Yes, Reagan softened his approach on human rights over time, but that reflected real Soviet progress on the issue, not U.S. indifference. And ultimately, it was changes inside the Soviet empire, not arms-control talks, that ended the Cold War.

U.S. foreign policy does indeed have multiple goals that must be balanced, but promoting reform is often one of them. Brutal regimes will not behave better if the United States speaks nicely about them. In fact, the perception of U.S. weakness in supporting its friends is a great disadvantage when negotiating with regimes like those in North Korea and Iran that are quick to perceive vulnerability. These states will negotiate — if they do — when they see it in their interest, not because the United States soft-pedals its differences. And eliciting this cooperation requires leverage. For example, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program not because the Bush administration spoke nicely to him, but because he feared American will. Sometimes, the pressure for change that comes from a country’s own people or elites might be the United States’ best source of leverage on such regimes.

Pushing for changes in the nature of states gets complicated the more the United States has genuine common interests with them — as Americans do, for example, with Egypt on Arab-Israeli peace or with China on managing the global economy. Issues of reform should be approached more quietly sometimes, but should not be abandoned. That would be disheartening to reformers who are often instrumental in bringing about the changes the United States seeks through engaging their governments.

“America Can’t Impose Its Values on Others.”

That sounds familiar. And now we hear it about the Arab world. When Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz were pushing for democratic reform in South Korea, many Korea experts warned that the country never had a democracy and wasn’t ready for one. Back then, realists cited the idea of “Asian values” — claiming that Asians were inherently different, preferring autocracy to democracy. Amid some similar claims about the Arab world today, it’s useful to recall how the United States successfully pushed for reform in the Philippines, and ultimately a peaceful democratic transition, without “imposing” its values.

After the 1983 murder of Filipino opposition leader Benigno Aquino, the Reagan administration began publicly pressing President Ferdinand Marcos to reform. Realists argued that this would lead to something worse, as it had done in Iran just a few years before. As assistant secretary of state, I argued that the Philippines’ communist insurgency was the greater threat and that democratic reform was the best hope to defeat it. Once it became clear that the United States wouldn’t oppose change, democratic reformers were emboldened. In 1986, a unified opposition won an open presidential election, and when Marcos tried to nullify it, a combination of U.S. pressure and Filipino “people power” forced him to step down. That was not “imposing American values” — it was putting America’s thumb on the reform side of the scale.

It is not uncommon to hear realists today arguing that Muslims don’t really want U.S. support for democracy, especially after the Iraq war. And yet, when Obama announced, during his important speech at Cairo University, that he would address democracy, his audience applauded before he could say another word. His three short paragraphs on democracy were interrupted twice more by applause — and then by someone shouting, “Barack Obama, we love you!” to yet more applause. Although the president spoke of “controversy” surrounding the promotion of democracy, his Arab audience welcomed this allegedly controversial subject with enthusiasm.

That a large audience in the heart of the Arab world is so eager to hear the U.S. president champion democracy is an important fact that any realistic foreign policy must consider. The Obama administration’s temptation to distance itself from its predecessor’s policies is understandable, but this shouldn’t mean abandoning the promotion of democratic reform.

“Promoting Democracy Is Dangerously Destabilizing.”

Not necessarily. Elections, even flawed ones, can be positive catalysts for change in autocratic states, as we saw in the Marcos case and during the recent events in Iran. It is true that elections are no panacea: The Bush administration was frustrated when terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah gained power through the ballot box. Elections alone don’t automatically produce the institutions needed to protect liberty and foster tolerance. But if there is risk in promoting democratic reform, there is also risk in doing nothing, which hurts America’s reputation as people see the United States acquiescing in their oppression.

In promoting reform, it’s important to keep in mind the admonition to “do no harm.” The collapse of the shah’s regime in Iran led to something worse for Iranians and for U.S. interests. So in the Arab world, the United States must steer a course between two dangers: on the one hand, that extremists will exploit the opportunities of a more open society and, on the other, that U.S. support for Arab dictators will generate hostility toward America. For decades, successive U.S. administrations have preferred stability over democracy in the Arab world. We have seen the result: a superficial stability that has encouraged the growth of extremism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism. When all opposition is suppressed, the forces of change go underground — and that is where radicalism thrives. Jailing a democratic reformer like Ayman Nour in Egypt is not a way to fight extremism.

The goal should not be revolution, but rather evolutionary change. That’s the best chance for true long-term stability. Most of all, when opportunities for genuine reform open up, as is happening now not only in Iraq and Lebanon but also in Morocco and elsewhere, the United States should give reformers all the support that it can. Of course, the United States will depend on some Arab autocrats to help promote a peaceful settlement of Arab-Israeli issues — issues that constitute another, perhaps even greater, source of anti-Americanism. But the role those leaders play in any peace process will turn on hard calculations of their own self-interest, not the stance the United States takes toward reform.

“Paul Wolfowitz Is a Utopian.”

No, I’m just being realistic. I’ve been called many things, and utopian is hardly the worst. Ironically, while “utopia” is Greek for “nowhere,” almost everywhere you look today you find people who share a belief in democracy. In Eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain no longer stands because true realists — “democratic realists” — confronted the true nature of the Soviet threat. Across Asia, hundreds of millions of people live under free governments in places where there were none just 70 years ago. In Africa, accountable government is increasingly seen as the key to better governance and thus to economic progress. And in Latin America, the answer to the danger of populist dictatorships is not a return to right-wing autocrats but rather support for the institutions of liberal democracy.

Today we even see the seeds of democracy in Iraq, of all places, which is grappling with its enormous challenges through democratic means. It was refreshing to hear an Iraqi politician recently say that he would deal with a disputed election outcome by negotiation. That is something new in the Arab world, and the message is not lost on Iraq’s neighbors. The Obama administration, too, appears to have taken note of this important development.

There are plenty of reasons to be cautious about the still-fragile situation in Iraq and no reason to declare success prematurely. But we should not let an excess of caution — or a desire to see past positions vindicated — blind us to the positive realities that are appearing on the ground there.

Obama often quotes Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That arc can be long indeed. It was many years after the Korean War before South Korea began to resemble the brilliant success story of today. And the arc in the Middle East may be even longer, but if it reaches justice and true stability, the world will be safer as a result. And that achievement will be thanks to leaders who pursue that truer realism — a democratic realism.

Want to Know More?

German-American scholar Hans Morgenthau was among the first to put realism — a philosophy that puts national interests ahead of moral concerns –at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. His book Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1948) set the stage for much of the Cold War realpolitik that followed. Another pioneer of realism is Henry Kissinger, U.S. secretary of state in the 1970s and author of A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1957). The work, originally Kissinger’s Harvard University Ph.D. thesis, celebrates two European politicians for upholding their country’s interests at a time of great upheaval.

More recently, political scientists John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, the latter a blogger, have emerged to offer the liberal version of Kissingerian realpolitik. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, by Mearsheimer (New York: Norton, 2001), paints a picture of a post-Cold War world where conflict between states is a constant. In Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: Norton, 2005), Walt explains why America is perceived as a threat in the post-Cold War era, and why the United States should tread more lightly abroad.

Neoconservatism arose in the 1970s as a critique of realism, and Johns Hopkins University scholar Francis Fukuyama’s controversial essay on the Iraq war, “The Neoconservative Moment” (The National Interest, Summer 2004), may have been when the realist backlash began. Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers address some of the questions about whether democracy and the Arab world can mix in “Think Again: Middle East Democracy” (Foreign Policy, November/December 2004).

Journalist Robert D. Kaplan argues that geographic determinism is at the core of realism in “The Revenge of Geography” (Foreign Policy, May/June 2009). And in’s “Seven Questions: Paul Wolfowitz” (June 2008), the interviewee offers practical suggestions for ousting Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. In “Obama and the Freedom Agenda” (Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2009), Wolfowitz urges U.S. President Barack Obama to push human rights in the Middle East.

Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former president of the World Bank, was U.S. deputy secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005.

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